Four years after his shock victory, U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be running on empty. Opinion polls predict a win for former Vice President Joe Biden. In some Democratic circles, the word “landslide” is being jubilantly whispered.
It seems that Trump is finally being judged on his performance, especially his calamitous response to the coronavirus pandemic. His Republican colleagues have begun to recoil from him. The president himself, already complaining about rigged elections, seems to be expecting defeat.
And it is too late for him to learn from two of his fellow elected autocrats and demagogues — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who continue to win elections despite presiding over multiple political and economic disasters.
Two self-proclaimed outsiders to the political system, Erdogan and Modi also rose to political power on the back of anger and disaffection with the establishments in their respective countries.
Railing against the corruption and nepotism of local elites, they endeared themselves to numerous left-behinds. Like Trump, they connected with the lived experience of millions of people — the feeling of being scorned as well as excluded by establishment politicians and the mainstream media.
The biggest asset all three leaders had was this acute sense of reality. It allowed them to renew visions of national greatness, asserting that these could be realized once the old elites had been effectively sidelined.
Unlike Trump, however, Modi and Erdogan have diversified their means of self-perpetuation.
For one, they have been far more successful than the U.S. president in forging new realities for their audiences through conspiracy theories and fake news, which has helped them avoid crushing judgment on their performances.
They not only mastered digital technology and social media, they’ve managed to control the legacy media through a regime of intimidation that has silenced and marginalized critics.
Though successful in packing the Supreme Court, and assured of stalwart support from Fox News, Trump could not begin to imitate Modi and Erdogan’s long march through national institutions, from the education system and television channels to the military.
Even Republicans rallied relatively late around Trump. Modi and Erdogan have long had dedicated ideological cadres working for them.
One sign of their success is that Modi even managed to benefit electorally from demonetization — his shock withdrawal from circulation of nearly all currency notes, which broke the back of the Indian economy long before the pandemic.
Having effectively created a whole new world of feeling and thinking, Modi convinced enough Indians that he had done the right thing in his pursuit of rich and corrupt elites. Though guilty of a botched lockdown in the early days of the pandemic, Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime more recently dodged responsibility by blaming the virus on the handiwork of “corona-jihadists.”
To the victims of his blunders, Modi invokes the Hindu value of sacrifice, arguing that pain and privation are the price individuals pay for national greatness. Erdogan’s persona as a faithful Muslim similarly helps many devout Turks identify with him.
Trump confronts defeat partly because he can neither draw upon a spiritual and ethical tradition (as distinct from QAnon), nor appeal any longer to enlightened self-interest.
He loudly denounces China and rails against “cultural Marxists.” But menacing images of the internal and external enemy, indispensable to any demagogue, don’t seem to have become electorally consequential outside Trump’s base of white voters without college degrees.
Moreover, this base has shrunk in four years, part of a long-term demographic decline, and Trump has conspicuously failed to reach out to an expanding and politically significant demographic: minorities and college-educated white voters.
In that sense, Modi and Erdogan appear to have mastered the art of the deal better than Trump, continuously shoring up their power with canny coalitions. Though an avowed Islamist, Erdogan is now allied with the secular and ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Modi has successfully expanded, often with the help of small regional parties and secular politicians, his influence in states where he previously had little presence.
Modi and Erdogan also continue to benefit from a fragmented opposition. Trump, on the other hand, has struggled against serious political and legal challenges right from the beginning of his term. With his manifold bungles, he has united a unique and formidable opposition against him, spanning several ethnic/racial groups and socio-economic classes, as well as ideologies ranging from the Green New Deal to the Lincoln Project.
The malign energies of the far right that Trump unleashed won’t fade quickly. But Nov. 3 is likely to expose the extraordinarily narrow and rickety platform on which this very stable genius perched for four years. –Bloomberg